Reviewed: March 13, 2010
Released: February 16, 2010
Though Tropico 2 explored a pirate island theme and involved gameplay diverging significantly from the original Tropico, this third title in the series returns to its roots in simulating a Cold War-era Caribbean dictatorship. Developed by Bulgarian company Haemimont Games and published by the German Kalypso Media Group, Tropico 3 might play like a city-building simulator, but it allows players the satisfaction of ruling their own banana republic (with an iron fist or benevolently, as you like) and includes a heavy dose of wonderfully cheesy political humor.
A historical fiction game set in the time period around the 1950s to 1980s, the game bases much of its atmosphere and flavor on Cuba during Fidel Castro’s reign. Tropico 3 gives the player the option of playing a premade historical dictator character (such as Castro, Che Guevara, Augusto Pinochet, and many others) or a custom dictator created from scratch. Depending on how “El Presidente” rose to power and his or her social background and personal qualities, the chosen dictator will have certain flaws and advantages, such as a poor reputation with the religious faction for being an alcoholic, or better combat efficacy from being a war hero. The player may choose to play a male or female dictator, but besides the avatar appearance and voice, the game will generally refer to El Presidente as male, and the choice makes no difference in gameplay. (Interestingly enough, a woman El Presidente may select “womanizer” as a quality, reducing her standing with intellectual females, but there is no gender-swapped option.)
Tropico 3 includes a brief tutorial to provide budding dictators with a grasp of the game’s basic controls and mechanics, but that’s about all the guidance you’ll get. There’s actually a pretty noticeable gap between the tutorial and the very first campaign, and you’ll need to experiment on your own to figure out how the rest of the game works. The first few campaigns are fairly forgiving, so despite the less than optimal learning curve, if you don’t mind taking the training portion of the game into your own hands, you’ll be on your way to becoming a ruthless Caribbean tyrant in no time.
One of Tropico 3’s strengths is the wide range of ways players can run their little island. Perhaps you’d like to build a tourist paradise and create an honest democratic government. Or, perhaps you’d prefer to govern a police state and pass edicts that coincidentally also funnel funds into your personal Swiss bank account. Whatever kind of El Presidente you play, throughout the 15 solo campaign scenarios, challenges, and sandbox modes, most of the game will require you to balance resource management, civil planning, and political strategy in order to stay in power. Upset the populace enough with poor housing, health conditions, or unemployment rates, and you might have a violent uprising on your hands. Personal attention from your El Presidente avatar, however, may help calm these protests before they get physical.
Luckily, not much time is wasted on micromanaging the island’s activities. For example, if you have a tobacco farm, a cigar factory, and a dock, the workers will make sure that the cigars gets manufactured and exported without your direction. All the player has to do is keep an eye on the big picture – such as the treasury balance, population happiness, and standing with various factions – and the rest is taken care of based on buildings erected and edicts or agreements executed.
Generally, Tropico 3 plays very well and can easily take up several enjoyable hours of your time per campaign. There are a few frustrating points, though, that I’d like to note for potential players. The game does tend to lag at times, and building a city can become a trying process when moving one building to the right location and orienting it correctly can take several minutes.
Additionally, the menus and controls overall are not especially intuitive and can be difficult to get used to. I imagine that porting a PC game of this complexity to the 360 is going to make the controls complicated no matter what, but that doesn’t change the fact that even spending many consecutive hours on this game doesn’t really make navigating the menus and buttons that much less awkward. Also, without using the 360’s HD capabilities, I found the small text a tad difficult to read, despite having young eyes and a big screen.
Visually, though, Tropico 3 is beautiful. The graphics convincingly evoke a lush tropical environment, complete with swaying palm trees, glistening waves, and warm-looking sandy beaches. You can zoom in pretty close to the various buildings, all of which are thoughtfully detailed, including the rust spots and dirt on the corrugated sheet metal shanty roofs, the clothing hanging from lines strung across tenement balconies, and the occasional Aztec- or Mayan-style ruins. The game does a great job of combining the squalor and beauty that you might expect from a fictional, but believable, Caribbean island of the time.
Environmental sounds enhance the effect of realism, especially when you zoom in close to your city, incorporating the noise of puttering cars, a bustling populace, the sawing of trees being felled, shouts of protesters, and various other noises you’d expect to hear, depending on what’s going on nearby. The upbeat Latin soundtrack and Juanito’s tongue-in-cheek radio show reporting on your island’s news both add panache to the atmosphere of the game, but both are somewhat limited in variety, so be prepared for frequent repetition.
Retailing for $39.99, the game is moderately priced and provides at least a few nights’ entertainment, and depending on how patient you are with clunky controls and the somewhat unhelpful tutorial, you may end up leaving it at that. For around the same price, I would personally prefer to play this kind of game on my PC, but it’s reasonably playable on the 360.
If you’ve ever daydreamed of being a Caribbean dictator, Tropico 3 provides you with just kind of gaming experience, and the generous helping of over-the-top political humor and educational tidbits from that era in history are what really set this game apart from other city simulations. Despite the unintuitive control scheme and other hiccups, the game offers an appealing balance of city building, politics, and resource management. If you’re a fan of the genre, it’s probably worth at least a few hours of your time to try out.